While there are many uncertainties, state regulators plan to enact significant restrictions on flounder fishing including a recreational fishing moratorium that would begin around September 4 and last for nearly a year.
Depending on the final order issued by the Division of Marine Fisheries, expected by late this week, commercial flounder harvests would be limited to roughly 30 days in the fall, depending on whether anglers work in the northern, central or southern parts of the state (with the southern part having a six-week harvest). Charter boats could harvest up to four fish per trip, while traditional hook-and-line and gig fishermen would be banned from harvesting Southern flounder until roughly mid-August 2020. The rules will also apply to gulf and summer flounder, the other two species found in Tar Heel waters.
The majority of the state’s Marine Fisheries Commission approved the plan last week, suggested by regulators because the most recent survey shows flounder are overfished (the population is too small) and there is overfishing (too many fish are being landed).
State studies suggest that flounder harvests should be reduced by 52-72 percent to achieve a 50-percent chance of rebuilding a sustainable harvest within a decade. The framework for the new rules “does not rebuild stocks to end overfished status,” according to the Division of Marine Fisheries.
The stakes are high and change is controversial.
Flounder had a “dock value” of $5.7-million in North Carolina in 2017, the latest year for which complete statistics are available. It’s a popular target species for commercial anglers in the fall and recreational anglers in the spring and summer.
Commercial and recreational anglers question the survey methods and the state’s approach for rebuilding fish stocks.
Southern flounder are migratory and found from Florida to the North Carolina-Virginia line. North Carolina’s unilateral decision won’t affect harvests in other states, and some commercial fishermen are already buying South Carolina licenses, said Randy Robinson, president of the Brunswick County Fisherman’s Association.
“They are just doing this in North Carolina, and they are fast-tracking it for no reason,” Robinson said. “It will devastate the commercial industry in North Carolina, as far as flounder fishing ... Up East, you will see fish houses close.”
Robinson said the trip ticket program for commercial fishermen requires them to account for everything they catch, including by-catch and fish that die and are discarded. Recreational fishermen are subject only to random surveys, and he called those results a “questionable guess.”
He said the issue was not commercial versus recreational fishing and that it is important to keep the tradition of fishing alive in North Carolina. Robinson blamed “special interest groups,” such as the Coastal Conservation Association and the N.C. Wildlife Federation for the push for new restrictions.
Charter captain Cane Faircloth, chairman of the Lockwood Folly Association, said he blamed neither commercial nor recreational angling for fishery declines.
“I feel we need to look at the bigger picture, and water pollution is the main culprit here,” Faircloth said. “Our estuaries and rivers where flounder eggs are laid and hatched is a landfill of water run off filled with nitrogen and other pollutants. This is killing way more flounder than the fishermen.”
North Carolina law requires Marine Fisheries to come up with a plan when fish stocks decline below certain levels. The Commission declined a request by the Wildlife Federation to restrict shrimp trawling in estuaries as a way to reduce by-catch.